North Korea Test Aimed at Internal Audience?

Domestic factors may have driven North Korea's reclusive leader to conduct a nuclear test. Some analysts see it as an attempt to spur nationalism among the masses, while others say it could be a sign of Kim Jong-il's internal weakness.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you're wondering just what is going on inside North Korea, you're not alone. The conventional wisdom is that North Korea's claimed nuclear test is aimed at forcing the United States to negotiate. But there's also the question of what domestic factors are at play inside this reclusive Stalinist state.

NPR's Louisa Lim has been talking to the North Korea-watchers.

(Soundbite of North Korean news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LOUISA LIM: This is how North Korea announced its nuclear test. For one British man, this gleeful, hectoring broadcast brought back familiar memories.

Mr. MICHAEL HARROLD (Author, Comrades and Strangers): There's a very strident way of delivering propaganda; newsreels use it. And also in the streets, you know, the factory next door to where we live, they would have their propaganda announcers in the morning. You would have this rising tide of hysteria almost.

LIM: Michael Harrold spent seven years in Pyongyang editing the English translations of speeches by then-President Kim Il Sung and his son, the current leader, Kim Jong Il. His book, Comrades and Strangers, describes his time working the vast propaganda machine which he says has one ultimate aim.

Mr. HARROLD: They're rallying people. It's always a rallying cry. It's always to get people behind the message. It's always to get people's support.

LIM: In the West, Kim Jong Il is seen as an absolute dictator who rules through fear. But his grip on power may not be that monolithic. Reports have emerged of a power struggle between military hardliners and more reform-minded factions. Xia Liping from Shanghai Institute for International Studies says Kim may be using the nuclear test for domestic political consideration.

Professor XIA LIPING (Shanghai Institute for International Studies): I think in fact military control the power. Second, I think Kim Jong Il also would like to strengthen his power of control. And also he may consider the succession issue.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #2: The seasoned leadership of Kim Jong Il, the brilliant son and general...

LIM: North Korea's army is one million-strong, and the military-first policy Kim introduced gives them priority above all else. Given the failing economy, Michael Harrold believes developing a workable nuclear deterrent may also have financial benefits.

Mr. HARROLD: There's a domestic factor that North Korea is supposed to be spending somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of their average GDP on defense. Well, I think possibly they see a nuclear weapons as a more economical way of defending themselves.

LIM: It's also a matter of national pride. With tentative moves towards reform and opening up, North Koreans may be more aware of the outside world and of their own hardships in comparison. And so the regime is falling back on its tried and tested strategy of whipping up popular nationalism by defying far superior enemies.

Michael Breen has written a book about Kim Jong Il and says he needs to keep upping the ante.

Mr. MICHAEL BREEN (Author, The Koreans: America's Troubled Relations with North and South Korea): You say he's defying America. Well, from their point of view, who's America? By what right does America rule the world? If he appeared to cave in, he would lose his position internally.

LIM: The United Nations is now mulling over sanctions. North Korea has already warned it could see tough measures as a declaration of war. And Xia Liping says such punitive action could paradoxically strengthen the hand of North Korea's hardliners and provoke a strong response.

Prof. LIPING: It's very possible if there is a sanction, North Korea have for another nuclear test or another missile test, or even a test of launching missile with nuclear warhead on.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: People believe in you, Comrade Kim Jong Il. Our country cannot live without you. Those are the words of one propaganda song. And ultimately, Kim Jong Il may be looking at the history books. As the son of the President for Eternity, his authority largely rests on his bloodline. But in one decisive step he's achieved that which his own father could not: entry into the exclusive nuclear club.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.